The upper slopes of the Lake Louise Ski Area have exploded in colour this week as the thousands of larch trees that populate the upper edge of the forest have turned the golden hue that makes them famous at this time of year. It’s a great time to be on the mountain, when everyone is working hard to prepare for winter and clear skies make for spectacular vistas in all directions. The bears are slowly moving away from the ski area, and with a week or so left in the season for the summer sightseeing lift, visitors will move away as well, leaving staff to focus on opening day of the ski season, only a few weeks away.
With the snow from last week completely gone, we’re back to almost summer-like weather, and while the nights are getting colder and the days shorter, the sun still does a great job of heating things up during the day, making for pleasant working conditions everywhere on the mountain.
Working up around the Sunset area today was a group of about twenty-five volunteers for the World Cup ski races that will happen in November and December, like they do every year. The top part of the course, from above the Sunset Terrace down to the top of Tickety Chutes, is the most difficult section to build, due chiefly to its exposure to constant high wind. Not only does the wind reduce the amount of snow that falls, but it also can stymie any attempts to make man-made snow. The World Cup work crew was there to cover this section of the course with snow fence, using the same materials and methods used by our Trail Crew. Snow fence slows the wind, forcing it to drop any snow it may blowing across the slope. A properly placed fence can make all the difference, and when a sufficiently sized drift is formed, the snow is compacted and the fences removed, covering the area in snow that is much less likely to blow away. Once the groomers pack it down into the ice the racers love so much, it’ll take a lot more than wind to move it.
One of the things I love about being on the mountain without snow is that you really get a sense of the varied terrain, and I am continually amazed when I look into places like Whitehorn 1 and think it could ever become a ski run, and a great one at that. The entire slope is wall-to-wall boulders, some the size of a small car. If anything, I’m reminded of my appreciation for the wind and its ability to fill in the most gaping of holes.
Other features that lay buried beneath the snow and out of sight of most visitors are the signs of old lifts and other structures on the mountain. On the run Eagle Poma, for example, the concrete footings that anchored the towers of the old Eagle Poma lift are all still visible. When the original gondola was running, it travelled up to Whitehorn Lodge from the base terminal a few hundred metres from the Trans-Canada Highway. Skiers then had the option of skiing a short distance downhill to the base of the Poma lift, which ran up the present-day Deer Run and deposited them on a flat section right at the top of Eagle Flight.
The Poma was long gone by the time I arrived in Lake Louise, but I was able to enjoy a couple of summers when the old gondola was still in operation, in those heady days when mountain biking was allowed anywhere, including on the hill. Local staff were given summer passes for the gondola, and we’d spend entire days riding down as many different runs as we could. The Parks Canada crackdown on mountain biking put an end to that, though with what I know now about how many grizzly bears inhabit the ski area in summer, it was most probably a good thing, for bears and humans alike.
The Labour Day weekend is usually when thoughts really start to turn to winter at Lake Louise, but even without that spot on the calendar reminding us that opening day is only two short months away, the recent weather provided a brief sample of what’s to come.
After weeks of (finally!) genuine summer weather in August, the forecast took on an ominous tone, with predictions for steeply falling temperatures and snow. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened, and the mountains around Lake Louise received a nice crisp dusting of snow, and when the sun emerged again a few days later, everything sparkled. Frost coated the ground in the mornings that followed, cooled by the clear nights, and there were reports of some windshield scraping in Lake Louise and Banff.
We still have another month of operation for our summer sightseeing lift, and while some staff continue to provide our guests with amazing scenery and possibly a bear sighting or three, others are getting ready for winter. The holiday weekend generally marks the arrival of permits to begin our annual program of brush cutting and other trail maintenance work, and weather permitting, will continue as long as possible, ideally until the day the snowmaking system roars to life on October 15.
Other work about to begin includes the installation of more winch anchors, which are used to hold grooming cats firm to the snow as they build runs and perform the nightly grooming. Winch anchors are usually six-foot lengths of steel I-beam or large-diameter pipe, buried six feet deep into the ground with cables extending up and suspended over the ground surface by posts for easier locating. Each year the cat drivers identify spots where anchors would improve the ability of the cats to shape the snow surface exactly how they want, especially on steep and uneven terrain.
A large part of the summer was spent making repairs to most of the large permanent fences that line areas of the upper mountain. These fences are used to collect snow, and suffer a fair amount of abuse over the course of a winter. It is vitally important they remain in good shape, as any broken boards result in a reduced ability to gather snow.
So, with the Labour Day weekend behind us, the Mountain Operations department at Lake Louise switches to jobs that are always a part of the ramp-up to winter – installing snow fence and brushing/clearing of runs. With thousands and thousands of t-posts to pound into the ground before it freezes, the Trail Crew likes to get as early a start as possible. With the ever-present danger of poor weather forcing a change in plans, the team likes to take advantage of nice dry conditions to get as much done on the upper mountain as they can, and the beautiful weather we’ve experienced lately has allowed them to make great progress.
Likewise, the tractor and hand-brushing crews get a lot more done in dry weather, so we can trim the grass and bushes on our runs, helping the snow that falls over the winter last longer into spring. Skiers never get to see the direct results of this brushing and cutting, since the evidence gets buried under the first snowfall of the year. Skiers would notice, however, if this work wasn’t done, since dirt and grass would appear much earlier than usual on the runs, and we’d have a challenge maintaining viable runs to the base area right up until closing day in early May.
These days, it doesn’t matter that the temperatures climbs to 25C every day – it’s September, and there’s lots to do to get ready for the winter.